Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press/Phoenix Poets (2010). 54 pp. $14.00.
If the world of American poetry could be visually mapped at the present time, it would look not unlike those early, heavy twentieth-century linen maps of the world dominated by colonial powers, with the various parts of the world color-coordinated to signify the colonial possessions of various European powers. In this scenario, the colonial powers would be represented by poetic schools or traditions with their affiliated MFA programs, journals, networks and so on: the map would be dominated by different establishments such as the New Formalists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, perhaps even the “post avants,” but the map would also need to feature colors for less organized or residual powers as well as contested territories.
Into this world comes Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order, a book that is both “traditional” and “experimental” but distinctly different, almost sui generis, when compared to the imagined map described above, with its carved-out territories and “settled” claims. One measure of the book’s success is that it simply ignores the map and all its various pieties by articulating a poetry that sounds like no one else writing at the moment (the closest kin here is C.D. Wright, but she would be a cousin). To be sure, there is a lineage behind Romey’s Order—Seamus Heaney’s pastoralism and Gerald Manley Hopkins alliterative pyrotechnics are certainly there, but this is a book that uses them as adaptive examples rather than as models to mimic. Not to mention that Atsuro Riley’s voice is a distinctly American voice–not an Irish or English one. Frank Bidart’s blurb provides some of the basic context: “Romey’s Order is the world of a young boy growing up in backwoods South Carolina. His father is an ex-soldier, his mother the Japanese wife his father brought home from his time as a soldier. Thus the radical dichotomies in the young boy’s world, rendered in a dense and beautiful, intensely expressive and inventive language.”
Romey’s Order features a non-urban voice—a voice of the country, from the country, in this case, from the South Carolina lowcountry, and this mastery of its idiom distinguishes itself from much contemporary American poetry which tends to feature generic urban voices, just as it links Riley’s poetry to some of the oldest traditions of Western poetry. Riley’s voice is distinctly, heavily, deliberately, “regional” but it is a knowing regionalism with a cosmopolitan’s appreciation for the value of the regional. The following is from the beginning of “Map,” a poem that simultaneously enacts its own lineage in terms of the pastoral tradition and its own veering away from it:
Trolling and trawling and crawfishing and crabbing and bass-boating
and trestle-jumping bare into rust-brackish water and cane-poling for bream
and shallow-gigging too with a nail-pointy broomstick and creek-shrimping
and cooler-dragging and coon-chasing and dove-dogging and duck-bagging
and squirrel-tailing and tail-hankering and hand-cranking and –shifting and
backfiring like a gun in his tittie-tan El Camino and parking it at The House
of Ham and Dawn’s Busy Hands and Betty’s pink house and Mrs. Sweatman’s
brick house and Linda’s dock-facing double-wide and spine-leaning Vicki
against her WIDE-GLIDE Pontiac and pumping for pay at Ray Wade’s
Esso and snuff-dipping and plug-sucking[…]
Other poems in Romey’s Order employ the same Southern inflection, but one that is bent into a modernist idiom featuring parataxis and fragmentation. In this regard, the writer Riley’s book most resembles is not the work of a poet but a novelist: William Faulkner. The collection’s main speaker, its central consciousness, is the boy Romey, who sees the world, in all of its brokenness, violence and natural richness, with a wondrous lyricism that brings to mind the language of Faulkner’s Benjy Compson in The Sound and The Fury as well as Darl’s sharp-eyed, exilic awareness in As I Lay Dying:
What was it for the longest time but lore, lure;
A heard-tell growing gold in the mind.
Word said (and word’d spread) it was well on back
Through the underwood by Bowen’s Canal.
Past convoluted trees there’s claydirt, a clear patch.
A (rife) clearing.
The broken, disconnected, paratactic idiom brilliantly summons up a consciousness damaged by
violence and stigma, one that hungers for refuge:
Where springs not fail
Canes not break nor welt on backs of leg
Green cresses plait
No plaque of heated iron scathes
(Nor noose, nor knives)
Articulated scapes arise
Behind or between the paratactic phrases there’s a narrative, but it’s all indirect and implicit. Collectively, the poems tell the story of growing up by the water, in a world rich in natural abundance, human intolerance and human violence—Romey’s father is given to expressing himself with memorable turns of phrase, and equally memorable acts of violence, most of which are never represented as such, but are powerfully represented by their scars, and their psychic aftereffects. Abundance and loss thus provide the dramatic tension within Romey’s world; how to negotiate the two is his challenge. Romey finds a solution in fastening on the beauty, the aural power, of language. He fetishes words, and the linguistic plenitude he discovers in them counters the alcohol-fuelled violence of the father and the violations he brings about with his speech. The son, that is, takes the word-gift from the father and hones it into an art of beauty and richness. Words here are not a way of dominating and controlling but are a means of revelation:
They’re all here today, every local-grown species, every flying insect with
a taste for something spoiled: heavy-hipped houseflies and hairy-chested
horseflies, bloated bluebottles, glossy greenbottles, dirtspeck-tiny
screen-huggers too high-strung to swat. One minute back, they were
hovering hairnet- (and halo-)style above my bald-headed daddy; now they
are down-diving, and landing, in dark clots and clusters, on his eyebrows,
neck-bones, knees. (“Turn”)
Romey’s word fetish becomes a way of mapping the minute (and not so minute) forms of physical life of the lowcountry, but also his poetry devotes itself to mapping its linguistic plenitude. Riley’s poetry not only marvels at the musicality of words, but it finds in language revelation—secret truths, unremarked connections, ultimately the meaning-patterns that make up this watery world, a world that marries so many contraries:
There was the trestle that carried the train that trusted the trestle that bridged
the river that cooled the fish that fed the boy that watched the trestle that
slow-cankered and –rusted and fell. (“Strand”)
One of the recurring motifs of Romey’s Order is Romey’s search for hidden places, refuges where he can find sanctuary. While Riley’s world is rich in its natural abundance, it is also a place of menace. The collection itself enacts a search for home, safety, acceptance and love. In the end, Riley’s poetry itself becomes that home: it embodies the values marginalized by the rougher elements of his community. Romey’s Order is in this regard very much in the tradition of literature of education—that is, the education of the hero into the ways of the world. Romey is made to confront its twisted, grotesque ways at an early age; and it’s no small thing that his dense, highly-wrought language creates order out of that legacy.
But Romey’s Order is also about another order, the language of the community he grows up in. There’s a generous amount of the “heard-tell” in this book—reported speech as well as what Bakhtin refers to as “double-voiced” speech, that is, “another’s speech in another’s language,” which Riley inflects as a means of measuring the difference between speech then and now, and the different intentions that can co-exist within the same language use. Whatever the various intentions, Romey’s Order renders the dialect of the tribe as pure poetry. In Riley’s deft, inventive weaving together of prose poetry and free verse, he tells an individual story, but equally, he tells the story of an entire community. Even in these respects, it would be rash to equate Atsuro Riley’s achievement with Faulkner’s. But in bringing to poetry a stunning particularity of detail, along with a highly-measured sense of the expressive possibilities of ordinary speech–elements more recently associated with the novel–Atsuro Riley has already extended the borders of contemporary American poetry.
Jon Thompson is the editor of Free Verse.